U.S. consumer confidence in beef safety is high, thanks to ongoing efforts to prevent a BSE outbreak.
Caution: Do Not Eat” are the words on the yellow tape wrapped around a raw steak. The image is the lead photograph in a recent Newsweek article about mad cow disease.
It's not a picture anyone in the beef industry wants to see — especially in a magazine that reaches 3.1 million U.S. consumers.
According to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), 93% of consumers have heard something recently about mad cow disease or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). But the same study shows consumer confidence in the safety of U.S. beef is at 85% — one of the highest levels since NCBA began capturing the data in 1996.
Such high consumer confidence is the result of decades of leadership in food safety, says Chuck Schroeder, CEO of NCBA.
“When it comes to BSE prevention, the U.S. is a country of firsts,” he says. The U.S. was the first country to implement stringent feed and import bans without actually having the disease within its borders. It was also first to create an ongoing surveillance program, he says.
The nationwide surveillance program began in 1990 and is coordinated through USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and state diagnostic laboratories.
The program aims to ensure immediate detection if BSE is introduced to the U.S. As of March, more than 12,000 bovine brain samples had been submitted to the program. (See Figure 1.)
Alfonso Torres, DVM, deputy administrator of APHIS veterinary services, says that number statistically demonstrates the U.S. does not have BSE. But, he says the government is working to elevate that number and encourage some states to be more proactive in submitting samples for testing.
“We're dividing the country into regions, and we're setting goals for submission of samples from each of those regions,” he explains.
Knowing Where To Look
Older animals that have some neurological condition are considered at “high risk” for BSE. The U.S. is concentrating its testing on those animals, Torres says.
During FSIS's pre-slaughter inspection, all cattle with central nervous system conditions are identified, prohibited from slaughter and referred to APHIS's National Veterinary Services Laboratories (NVSL).
At NVSL, pathologists examine these animals' brains and test samples for a BSE marker (a protease-resistant prion protein).
NVSL pathologists also examine samples from other suspect cattle — including those identified on the farm or submitted to veterinary diagnostic labs or teaching hospitals.
Knowing What To Look For
An integral part of BSE surveillance prevention hinges on education. Thus, a major focus of USDA's surveillance program is training. This includes:
Educating vet practitioners, vet lab diagnosticians, industry and producers on BSE's clinical signs and pathology.
Providing BSE fact sheets and risk assessments to state and federal veterinarians, private practitioners, other industries and producers.
Presenting BSE information to animal health groups.
More than 250 state and federal field veterinarians have been trained to recognize and diagnose BSE. Veterinarians in federal and state governments, vet diagnostic labs and pathology departments of vet colleges have been sent videotapes of cattle showing clinical signs of BSE and microscope slides showing typical BSE lesions.
In addition, federal foreign animal disease diagnosticians have trained in Great Britain to recognize and diagnose BSE.
Other Surveillance Efforts
USDA-coordinated activities aren't the only BSE-avoidance efforts underway. Cooperation and interaction with state governments, other agencies, organizations and industries is very valuable and unique to the U.S., Torres says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the feed and beef industries are all part of USDA's surveillance program. In addition, the animal health community organizes several surveillance measures. These include:
More than 60 U.S. vet diagnostic labs annually examine hundreds of cattle brains submitted from adult cattle displaying neurologic signs either at slaughter or on the farm.
A network of private vet practitioners that refers unusual cases to veterinary schools and state diagnostic labs provides an extensive informal surveillance system.
Purdue University maintains the Veterinary Medical Database, which compiles diagnoses — including many neurologic cases — submitted by 27 U.S. veterinary schools.
The results of histologic examinations for BSE are included in a database on selected disease conditions maintained by the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory Reporting System.
Vet pathologists at U.S. zoos routinely conduct postmortem examinations on the brains of zoo animals exhibiting neurologic signs.
New Interagency Efforts
This summer, the government added a new component to its BSE prevention efforts. An interagency task force on foreign animal disease was established by the Animal Disease Risk Assessment, Prevention and Control Act of 2001.
The Act gives the agencies involved in BSE prevention an opportunity to go before Congress and highlight any needs for additional legislation or appropriations, Torres says.
Aiming For A Swift Response
Should the National Veterinary Services Laboratory (NVSL) ever detect bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in the U.S., several plans are in place to ensure a swift response.
In fact, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) are responsible for providing a step-by-step plan of action.
According to the BSE Response Plan, within the first 96 hours after identifying a presumptive BSE diagnosis, a NVSL pathologist would hand carry a sample to the UK for confirmation. This would activate the government's official response.
Steps Before Confirmation
Several things would happen during the 24- to 96-hour period between the NVSL's presumptive diagnosis and the UK's confirmed diagnosis.
APHIS field personnel would oversee a routine state quarantine of the herd from which the suspect animal came, trace its progeny and trace its adult herd mates. In addition, FSIS personnel would obtain carcass disposition, animal identification and origin information. And they would trace all food items and trace to the renderer.
Also during this time, the BSE Response Team — an APHIS and FSIS group — would assemble in Riverdale, MD. Besides obtaining funds for depopulation, the team would compile APHIS and FSIS information and briefing papers into an information packet.
Steps After Confirmation
The UK's confirmation of the diagnosis would initiate the next round of activities. The BSE Response Team would handle several of these, which include:
notify the secretary of agriculture,
conduct teleconferences with APHIS, FSIS, industry consumers and the government,
- notify embassies and the Office of International Epizootics,
issue a press release and host a press conference,
conduct regular and Congressional briefings and
provide daily updates on trade restrictions placed on the U.S.
At this point, APHIS would expand the quarantine to include the animal's progeny and would complete animal trace out on herd mates and progeny. NVSL would prepare to receive and process brain specimens on any herd mates, progeny or other suspects. And, FSIS would notify all field personnel of the confirmation and complete trace out on the animal's brain and spinal cord.
The BSE Emergency Disease Guidelines spells out these and further steps. It's distributed to APHIS headquarters and each regional and field office.
As new information becomes available, the plan's prevention and diagnostic measures are continually revised.
The BSE response plan does not directly address producer compensation for slaughtered cattle. The plan does provide guidelines for appraising animals destroyed due to agency efforts to eradicate an outbreak, says Ed Curlett, a spokesperson for APHIS.
“The secretary of agriculture would make the decision on compensation,” he says. “Producers are typically compensated when their operations are affected by agency efforts to eradicate an animal disease.”
The secretary of agriculture's authority on this issue may be revised to ensure producer compensation if Congress passes the Animal Health Protection Act. Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA) and Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) introduced the bill in May.
A complete summary of the BSE Response Plan and additional BSE resources are available at www.beef-mag.com.
Scientists Race To Find A Better Test
One major boost to prevention and surveillance efforts in the U.S. and abroad would be the ability to detect bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in living cattle.
A commercial diagnostic test that could reliably screen live animals for BSE would be a significant breakthrough, and many scientists are racing to develop one.
Researchers at the Hadassah-Hebrew University Hospital in Israel report that the disease can be detected in urine. According to the Jerusalem Post, they're establishing a start-up company to produce a commercial kit.
In addition, several companies are working on a blood test to detect the disease. Among them is Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, a German pharmaceutical company. In December, it filed a patent on a test that's able to measure BSE prion-related parameters in the blood of living animals. Clinical evaluation of the test should begin by the end of the year, according to the company's Web site.
Prionics AG, Zurich, Switzerland, markets the most widely used BSE surveillance test in Europe and is collaborating with U.S.-based Paradigm Genetics to develop and market a blood-based test.
Prion Developmental Laboratories, a private Maryland company formed specifically to find a new BSE test, also began developing a screening test last November.
Currently, confirming a BSE diagnosis involves a immunohistochemistry test and requires post-slaughter analysis of brain tissue.
The disease is difficult to diagnose because it's not caused by a virus or bacteria. Scientists are uncertain what causes BSE, but the common theory points to a misfolded prion protein as the infectious agent.